Mulrunji tragedy continues with Wotton declared guilty

Issue 

On October 24, Palm Island community leader Lex Wotton was found guilty of "riot with destruction" in a trial where police were accused by the defence counsel of "lying through their teeth". Wotton is due to be sentenced on November 7.

Wotton was at the protest against Palm Island police following the death in custody of 36-year-old Mulrunji Doomadgee. Mulrunji had been arrested by sergeant Chris Hurley for alleged "drunk and disorderly" behaviour. Forty two minutes after he was dragged into a cell, police failed to find a pulse, and Mulrunji was declared dead.

On November 26, 2004, Palm Islanders were informed at a town meeting that the pathologist's report had found Mulrunji's death was the result of a "tragic accident". They also heard that he had sustained a ruptured spleen, broken ribs and his liver had all but been split in two.

This provoked the protest that led to the burning-down of the police station, the courthouse and Hurley's home.

Wotton was labeled the ringleader of these actions during the trial. The judge repeatedly told the all-white jury that Mulrunji's death was of no consequence in determining Wotton's guilt.

Chris Graham, editor of the National Indigenous Times, has compiled a detailed account of the trial. He outlineed how witnesses for Wotton told the court he had played a role in trying to calm people down, including asking those throwing rocks at a fire engine to stop.

Wotton said he had offered to help police leave the town centre in order to get away from danger. Some witnesses claimed they had been intimidated into making statements that supported the police evidence. But testimony such as this was ignored.

Terrence Kidner, a witness for the prosecution who was earlier found guilty of setting Hurley's residence on fire, was given a lenient sentence as the court decided he was following Wotton's instructions. Kidner was accompanied to and from the court by two police minders.

The court also ignored the closing of ranks by the police. Detective sergeant Darren Robinson, who was also at the riot, admitted to the court that he had previously failed to fully investigate a number of allegations that Hurley had abused Aboriginal people.

One such abuse that was when Hurley struck an Aboriginal woman with his car. While the victim wasn't questioned, nor were her injuries — a broken leg and shin bone protruding from her thigh — assessed by police, the investigation found that it was a minor incident and no charges were laid.

Despite damning evidence of police wrongdoing in the Mulrunji and Wotton cases, the police have closed ranks to protect their own. Hurley's initial interview, after Mulrunji's death, was conducted by his colleagues, including Robinson, over dinner and drinks. The police did not mention that another watchhouse inmate, who subsequently hung himself, had told Palm Island residents that he saw Hurley beating Mulrunji.

Hurley, the first police officer ever to be charged as a result of a black death in custody, was only brought to trial in June 2007 following a campaign by Aboriginal people and their supporters against the original finding that Hurley had no charge to answer.

The Queensland Police Union attempted to force the issue by threatening to march on Queensland parliament, but the trial went ahead.

The Townsville trial of Hurley by an all-white jury found him not guilty, even though the state coroner Christine Clement said, "I find that Senior Sergeant Hurley hit Mulrunji while he was on the floor a number of times in a direct response to himself having been hit in the jaw and then falling to the floor … I conclude these actions … caused the fatal injuries."

The not guilty verdict came despite Hurley conceding in court that Mulrunji's injuries — likened to those sustained in a serious car crash — were not the result of a fall and that he, Hurley, "must have been responsible" for them.

Wotton was found guilty on the basis of police alleging he threatened them with foul language and they feared for their lives. Wotton's alleged attempt to offer to transport police away from the riot was described by the prosecution as another threat.

Wotton could face a sentence of life in prison. Hurley received a promotion and compensation totalling around $100,000. Robinson, who may still face disciplinary action, has also been promoted.

In another grotesque twist, the police officers who were sent to Palm Island to quell the riot, as well as Robinson, are apparently to receive medals for "bravery". The ceremony will take place four days before Wotton is sentenced in Townsville.

Aboriginal activist Sam Watson condemned this as a "provocation". He told ABC Online on October 28 that this stunt is an attempt by the police to "present themselves as victims and place pressure on the trial judge to hand down a very severe penalty" on Wotton.

Watson condemned what he described as "cheap, brutal and thuggish politics".

Rallies in defence of Wotton occured on November 1 and more will take place on November 7 (see calendar on page 23 for details). A legal appeal has also been launched on Wotton's behalf.

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